Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Second Look at a Potential FOX Bid for Big Ten Media Rights

Since the time is growing closer to the Big Ten deciding its future television home for its sports content, I wanted to take a second look at the future compared to something I wrote at the tail end of 2013 regarding the potential of FOX as a rightsholder.  Its a longer read, but I think there is a lot of items to consider from that piece, the comments that others wrote and where FOX stands with its sports properties.

Before more long-winded stuff: BTN is not part of this next negotiation.  FOX Cable Networks and the Big Ten have the content rights for the network for fifteen more years after the current ABC/ESPN & CBS agreements end, which is after the 2016-17 athletic year.  While alterations to the existing TV deals have been made as schools have entered the conference, to my knowledge the BTN contract cannot be opened to extract games for another entity.

The broadcast network with football
FOX's current schedule for national telecasts is anywhere from sixteen to nineteen regular season games.  At a minimum, FOX has to show six Big 12 and eight Pac-12 games each year (yes, FOX screwed up in 2013 with respect to the Pac-12) into the next decade.

Can they air more?  It depends a few factors
  • Are regional telecasts or combining with a FOX pay TV property to target games to specific markets a consideration, such as ABC's use of the reverse mirror option for many Big Ten games?
    • Do the television contracts with the Big 12 and Pac-12 allow for it?  I don't think they are for the Pac-12.
  • Could telecast start times be adjusted to allow for more telecast windows?
  • What does the Big Ten want?  Do they require a minimum number of games to air full national on a broadcast network?
Of the twenty Big Ten games that aired on ABC in 2014, nine games were full national, eight of them on Saturdays and one on Black Friday

Where FOX may have to make a decision involves its MLB telecast windows on the broadcast network.  Around seven or eight Saturdays (typically all of September & at least two or three in October) are set aside for MLB regular season, playoffs & World Series.  While FOX can air games right after MLB regular season games end and could move the night games back thirty minutes to 8pm possibly, the MLB playoff windows are tougher to work around and FOX typically has to work on the assumption that a game WILL be played vs. the possibility a game WON'T be.

The broadcast network and basketball
For the first time, FOX had a regular season series of games, mostly from the Big East with two games from the Pac-12.  From Sports Media Watch, the package was not a hit from a ratings standpoint though FOX did well with the Duke-St. John's game since it was the 1,000th win for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

FOX has the space to air additional games on the broadcast network on weekends if they want to and did a few doubleheaders.  On the other hand, the Big Ten appears to have a decent relationship with CBS and the importance of the NCAA tournament airing on that network, in my opinion, can't be ignored.  Until the 2013-14 season when FOX aired a couple Big East games, CBS had been the only broadcast network airing regular season college basketball for five years as ABC's regular season coverage ended.

In that sense, I'm not sure what FOX can offer the conference from an exposure standpoint, though its possible FOX can have year over year improvement.  Remember that regular season college basketball isn't a big ratings hit.

In my opinion, CBS, like ESPN in the pay TV area, has established itself as the "go to" network and having the championship of the sport makes it an ideal destination for games to be shown.

The pay TV side for football
When you look at Saturdays on FOX Sports 1, they don't have the 100% open canvas that one might think, at least right now.  There will be MLB regular season and playoff games on the network each Saturday through mid-October.  UFC Fight Night and PPV prelims take up space at least through 2018.  And there are NASCAR truck series races occasionally on Fridays & Saturdays.

From a football standpoint, they are committed to at least six Big 12 games plus around 14 Pac-12 games per year.  At the moment, I am not counting Conference USA because their rights agreement with FOX expires after this football season, but the number of Saturday telecasts on FS1 has been minimal.  Four in both 2013 and 2014.

The Big 12 agreement appears to offer much more flexibility than the Pac-12 one does on the pay TV side, so it is possible that other FOX properties (currently FSN & FOX College Sports, maybe FS2 in future once it is in more homes) can take games.  If C-USA were to stick around, I would expect FSN, FS2 and FOX College Sports to be their primary outlets for Saturday telecasts.

The pay TV side for basketball
To provide a starting point, here's the number of Big Ten controlled games that ESPN platforms showed in 2014-15.  These numbers do not include five games from the conference tournament shown on ESPN or ESPN2, but its worth keeping those in mind.
  • ESPN: 31
  • ESPN2: 14
  • ESPNU: 22
  • ESPNEWS: 3
  • ESPN3: 26
The first three channels listed carried a mix of conference and non-conference games where ESPNEWS & ESPN3's 29 games were strictly non-conference games.

Right now, FS1's schedule is very heavily weighted towards the Big East.  They have the ability to sublicense up to 30 games per year to CBS for airing on CBS and CBS Sports Network, but the first two athletic years have seen the minimum of twenty games sent over to CBS.  The Big East contract appears to be flexible enough to allow for games on FS2 and a subset of games air on FSN, typically on weekends.  The Pac-12 games appear to be less flexible and look like they must air on FOX Sports 1.  As for C-USA, I believe their content allows for flexibility between FS1 and FSN.  I am unsure about FS2, but that could be part of a future agreement for them.

Not part of this is the number of games on BTN and BTN Plus, BTN's online subscription service where many productions are staffed by students.  I'm unsure of the availability of the BTN Plus items and if they fall under the rights umbrella of BTN or if they could be unlocked and made available.  BTN's content rights remain with the channel and, as I understand it, will remain unchanged as the Big Ten & FOX partnership was a 25 year agreement.

The content parameters of a FOX agreement
I want to get something out of the way immediately:  ESPN and CBS don't have a space problem when it comes to fitting all these games in.  I would assume that both have the opportunity to negotiate exclusively with the conference first before FOX can provide an official offer, and that both would be able to provide a counteroffer in some cases if FOX were to bid on all rights.  In the case of ESPN, they have executed new carriage agreements, as part of larger Disney agreements, with mulitple pay TV providers and I believe they'll have the cash to keep all of the Big Ten rights they currently have as long as they want to.  CBS's pool of rights, while smaller in content and presumably smaller in rights fees, should be relatively easy to keep.

With that said, if FOX were to get to the negotiating table, I do agree that FOX should be able to make a decent offer for a portion of the rights.  Here's what I would try to frame from a content standpoint (I'm not going to make a guess on the money side of things):

I believe increased use of FOX Sports 2 for the Big 12 & potentially C-USA, plus some amendments regarding start times for their current football telecast windows, make this a viable option and does not require regional telecasts on FOX broadcast network.
  • Seven games on broadcast TV & up to ten games on FOX Sports 1
    • Minimum of two games in primetime broadcast television and two additional primetime windows on FS1
    • Maximum of three noon ET games on broadcast television
    • A guaranteed Black Friday window on either FS1 or FOX
    • At least one Thursday night game on FS1.  
      • No more than two on FS1 with approval of conference
      • Only in September
      • One must be the opening Thursday night of the season
    • Top selection rights for three broadcast network games a year
    • Top pay TV selection for two Saturday games per year
    • The opportunity to pre-select Ohio St. vs. Michigan for FOX broadcast network every X number of years 
      • Would count as one of the three "top" broadcast network games FOX would have
    • Goal of staying away from ABC's Big Ten telecast windows during FOX's broadcast network games.
  • The Big Ten championship game every other year (maybe the years FOX doesn't have the Pac-12 championship)
Basketball (all on FS1)
I want to preface this portion by saying it would be imperative for FOX to work with the Big East to either send the full allotment of 30 games over to CBS for airing on CBS and CBSSN (maybe work on scheduling them on nights when CBSSN can take them) or place a few more games during conference play on FS2.
  • Up to twenty regular season games per year
    • One game on Wednesdays during conference season
      • Approximately 10 games per year
      • These could come from ESPN's existing Thursday inventory of ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU games, along with any of ESPNU's Big Ten games on Tuesdays
    • All Big Ten controlled games part of the Gavitt Tipoff series (4 games per year)
      • ESPN would keep all games in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge
    • Up to six other non-conference games
  • One opening round game from the conference tournament (see Wednesday at 4:30pm) every year or every other year
    • Would line up with the two first round games in the evening from the Big East.


Unknown said...


Is there any possibility that Fox may spread out to FX like they did prior to kicking off FS1?

Matt Sarzyniak said...

Some writing I did re: FX looks like it hit the cutting room floor. Short response: If FOX can't get the Big 12 to agree to FS2 games, then FX would be an alternative for a mix of Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. But I think the goal is to grow FS1.

Serge said...

Sorry Matt but I don't share your vision on this... Only 10 FB games on FS1? (less than one per week) Only two top picks per year? And all this while losing the CCG every other year?

Also: Less BB games than the Pac-12 deal? Pac-12 games on FS1 are doing even worse than Big East games mainly because there are so few on FS1 and people doesn't even consider FS1 as a destination for Pac-12 hoops.

With all due respect, this proposal seems more destined to reduce/eliminate reverse mirrors and extra games off ESPN than to position FS1/FOX as a stronger competitor in college sports TV. If FOX is going to spend big bucks on the B1G, I expect a much stronger return than this.

My proposal? An even split, or as close as you can get, with ESPN: FB: 24 games with at least 8 on Big FOX (reverse mirror with FX if you need to) and 16 on FS1 (adjust start times to ESPN's 12-3:30-7-10:30 model, kick Big XII games off to FS2)... BB: 30-35 games, guaranteeing at least 2 games per week, do a Big Monday DH with the Big East and/or a Big Thursday or Sunday with the Pac-12... the FS1 windows are there (they had like 150 games this season), just move the non-marquee Big East games to FS2 and slot the B1G games instead.

Something like this would truly be worth spending big buck for, while at the same time weakening a little bit the ESPN portfolio (which is what you want to do if you want to compete)...

Matt Sarzyniak said...

Serge, the only issue I take with your proposal is that FS1, provided they are keeping UFC programming around on FS1 past 2018, doesn't appear to be able go to the model of games you suggested. If you look at 2014 & potentially 2015, most Saturdays have a max available of three windows when accounting to NASCAR trucks, MLB and UFC.

Here's 2015 and 2014

I'll have something re: FX possibly tomorrow too.